British footwear brand Dr Martens launched its first sustainability strategy in 2022. It includes goals of becoming a net-zero business by 2040, making 100% of footwear from more sustainable materials by 2040, and maximising the length of time its footwear can be kept in use by 2025, with services such as repair.
As part of this, in April this year the brand announced it was introducing recycled leather into some of its ranges as part of its investment into more sustainable materials. Dr Martens was among a group of investors to inject $18m (£14.5m) into Peterborough-based recycled leather manufacturer Gen Phoenix. Luxury US fashion house Tapestry, which owns brands such as Coach, Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman, also took part in the funding.
Gen Phoenix takes leather offcuts from tanneries destined for landfill and separates the leather fibres before re-entangling them – producing a roll of recycled leather. Dr Martens is set to start using the material in 2024.
Later in the year, the brand further bolstered its sustainability efforts by launching an authorised repair service in October. It followed a successful trial in April 2022 conducted with resale platform Depop – which acts as a marketplace for refurbished Dr Martens’ products, that are repolished and given new laces, heel loops and insoles.
Repairs will be booked via a dedicated standalone website and will be run in partnership with The Boot Repair Company based in Leeds, Yorkshire. The repairs team can fix almost any part of a boot or shoe and will use original Dr Martens components, before delivering back to consumers.
The brand also plans to launch an official resale trial in the US in 2024, whereby consumers will be able to purchase secondhand products as well as trade in their old Dr Martens items in exchange for vouchers.
A year since it launched its “Planet, Product, People” strategy, Dr Martens’ head of sustainability, Tuze Mekik, tells Drapers about the progress it has made.
What progress has been made on the strategy launched last year?
Regarding the “planet” part of the strategy – we have submitted our emissions reduction targets to the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTI) [a partnership founded in 2015 between CDP, an international non-profit that helps measure environmental impacts, the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), with a mission to increase ambition in the fight against climate change] and should be hearing back on validation soon.
That will be important for our carbon footprinting work and getting to net zero – it validates that we’re on the right path [to reducing carbon emissions].
We’ve also invested in a carbon accounting tool, which is going to help us to do our carbon calculations internally. In the last few years, we’ve been using an external agency called The Carbon Trust, but we wanted to improve our abilities to monitor and track our journey.
Data is important, as is assure-ability and auditability of that information. You can do this externally, but you never really internalise and strategise insights [gathered externally] – so the tool is going to give us a lot of information about how we are doing, and what are the things that we should be changing.
On our product, exciting things are going on. Leather is a very important material to us, and it’s a durable material. Improving the sustainability of leather is one of the key things we are working on – traceability, the environmental impact, where it comes from. There’s a lot of energy and effort going into in that space right now.
And we’ve invested in innovative materials – for example in in Gen Phoenix, which is working on the scalable product [recycled leather]. We’ll continue to work on that and use the material. It will be launching next year in some of our key models, at lower quantities at first to test it out.
What investment and challenges did the repairs service involve?
Depop was the initial trial and then the authorised repair was quite an investment – we had to get Dr Martens’ machinery into the repairs centre and train the people of our partner, the Boot Repair Company.
I think the challenges to scale up any of these sorts of models is being able to identify those partners who can actually deliver – that is not an easy thing.
I think this also works with the US [where Dr Martens will launch an official resale trial in 2024]. The resale model basically takes it [products] from the consumer, refurbishes or repairs it, and prepares it for resale again. Interestingly, quite a lot of technology needs to happen there. So again, it is key that we find the right repair partners in the in the US. There will be a lot of learning during that trial.
How important is traceability when it comes to leather?
With leather, our focus is going back to abattoir. 87% of our leather is traceable to abattoir, and we’re aiming to close that gap as soon as we can.
We are a key member of Leather Working Group [an auditing body that measures the environmental impact of leather, founded in 2005], we’ve been there since the beginning and we’re vocal. We’re leading in their traceability sub-group, as our leather manager is the chair.
With traceability, we are definitely anticipating legislation. It’s happening in Europe [the European Commission has put forward a proposal that all products on the EU market, whether produced inside or outside the EU, should have a digital product passport (DPP) containing data from its entire lifecycle, with regulation thought to come into effect by 2026/27] and we believe the UK is going to follow that.
With digital product passports, the consumer is going to see where everything is coming from. So in that sense, traceability is really important.
We have invested in new PLM [product lifecycle management] software that we’re currently on-boarding [Dr Martens is introducing this system in 2024] – this new software is all about data, it’s about learning and working on the product data, cross functionally. So, the supply chain team, the product design team – they’re all into this.
PLM gives us the ability to work together to manage the lifecycle of the product. From our perspective, sustainability is where the data is. That includes information about traceability, or how much is recycled, for example. They’re all data points we’re inputting in the PLM. So it is quite key software for us that we’re building and will help us continuously improve [on sustainability and traceability] over time. I believe it’s a gamechanger.
What are the biggest challenges to fashion brands becoming more sustainable in the coming years?
There are two key ones.
Firstly, the scalability of sustainable materials. As you know, everybody’s talking about different materials, there are lots of start-ups and new materials coming up, but they need to be able to scale [in order for brands to use them in products].
It wasn’t just us [that invested] – other companies like [Coach owner] Tapestry and Jaguar also invested – it really brought is together, talking about key questions and in a productive, imaginative way.
In sustainability we’re not competitive, this is one big problem that we’re all facing, so we need to work together.
The second key challenge is engagement with supply chains. 99% of our emissions comes from our supply chain – it’s a challenge to get the data you need from them [in order to tackle carbon emissions]. Every company has suppliers in different parts of the world, with different regulations, different meanings [definitions of factors relating to sustainability].
But technology might help with that, such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s tool the Higg Index [a sustainability measurement tool that aims to drive environmental and social responsibility throughout supply chains].
But ultimately, it’s the human element – hearts and minds – that is important when you talk to suppliers. Trying to make sure that they are with you on this [sustainability] journey, because I think we’re all in it together.